Aiming to Ease Tensions, Without U.S.-Russia Pact

President Bush, with Laura Bush, and President Vladimir Putin put on a show of camaraderie at Sochi, on the Black Sea, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
President Bush, with Laura Bush, and President Vladimir Putin put on a show of camaraderie at Sochi, on the Black Sea, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. (By Vladimir Rodionov -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

SOCHI, Russia, April 5 -- President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin will not reach a deal on missile defense during weekend talks that opened Saturday, officials said, but they hope to put the turbulent U.S.-Russian relationship back on a friendlier footing for their successors.

Although the two sides were putting the finishing touches on a "strategic framework" intended to set a tone of cooperation on a range of issues, U.S. and Russian officials said they remained too far apart to sign a concrete pact on Bush's plan to build a missile shield in Eastern Europe. The White House said negotiations were moving in "the right direction" and expressed hope they would later yield an accord.

Bush and Putin put on a show of camaraderie as they got together at the presidential getaway in this Black Sea resort, pushing past the tensions of recent months that at times have evoked some of the harshest moments of the Cold War. Putin showed Bush a model of facilities he is building for the Winter Olympics here in 2014, then took him for a walk by the sea. They shared a casual, no-ties dinner of veal loin and red caviar as a Cossack chorus sang, and at one point the two men even jumped onstage and joined in the folk dancing.

"I would describe the atmosphere as warm, collegial, very comfortable, easygoing," said White House press secretary Dana Perino, who attended the dinner. "I would describe it as a sign of the deep relationship that President Bush has worked very hard along with President Putin to establish."

The easy bonhomie papered over deep differences not just on missile defense but also NATO expansion, Iran, Kosovo and other issues. With both men in the fading light of their presidencies, they hastily arranged this meeting following a NATO summit to make a final stab at breaking through logjams or at least easing any animosity during the coming transitions.

The visit was put together so quickly that the U.S. side had trouble finding a photocopier here in Sochi, and negotiators scrambled to put together a document the two presidents could sign to exhibit progress. From the way officials on both sides describe it, the strategic framework sounds like a fairly standard paper pledging to work together on familiar issues such as counterterrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, trade and energy.

The more substantive matter on the table is Bush's plan to build radar and interceptor-rocket-launching facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland, respectively, aimed at knocking down any ballistic missiles from the Middle East. Bush recently made concessions in a letter to Putin and in other talks between the two sides, offering Russia extensive rights to monitor the system and promising not to activate it without a demonstrated risk.

The positive Russian response encouraged the U.S. side into thinking a deal might be possible. Asked a week ago as Bush was flying to Europe whether he and Putin might resolve their differences on missile defense at Sochi, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said, "We may. We're hopeful." Sochi, he added, "is an opportunity to reach an agreement on missile defense. But hey, if we don't have it by Sochi, we'll keep working on it. There's no deadline here."

Bush's position was bolstered when NATO endorsed the system Thursday and urged Russia to join it. By Saturday, though, White House officials were no longer hopeful of a deal here. An agreement on missile defense "would be premature," Perino said. "We'll have some more work to do afterwards. But we think the dialogue is headed in the right direction and that this meeting will be able to push that along even further."

Bush arrived in Sochi uncertain about the future leadership of Russia. Under the Russian constitution, Putin is stepping down when his second term ends May 7, but he installed his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, in an election that kept any serious opposition off the ballot. Putin plans to become Medvedev's prime minister, and even Bush has wondered aloud who will really be in charge.

Although aides said Bush has met Medvedev before, he left such a faint impression that the president did not remember it at a recent news conference. Medvedev joined the two presidents for dinner Saturday night, and he will have a half-hour meeting with Bush on Sunday, their first real opportunity to evaluate each other as peers.

With Bush leaving office in January, some wondered how meaningful any agreement here could be. "The substance is commendable, but why are we signing this document with a lame-duck president?" asked Michael McFaul, a Russia scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who advises Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a candidate for president. "We should be engaging Medvedev after May, not Putin in April."

Bush started his day in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, where he celebrated NATO's decision to admit Croatia and Albania. "Henceforth, should any danger threaten your people, America and the NATO alliance will stand with you and no one will be able to take your freedom away," he told a crowd of 5,000 gathered in St. Mark's Square, where rockets hit in 1991 as Croatia declared independence.

It was a transcendent moment for a part of the world consumed by ethnic hatred and warfare a decade ago. Although parliaments in the 26 member states must now formally ratify the accession, Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader exulted over the latest step in European integration for his small country of 4.5 million with the fabled Dalmatian coast. "Croatia is going where it belongs," Sanader said. "Croatia is going back home."

Bush included Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski in the ceremonies even though his tiny country was blackballed by Greece, which objects to its name. "As soon as this issue is resolved, Macedonia will be extended an invitation to join the alliance," Bush said. "America's position is clear: Macedonia should take its place in NATO as soon as possible."


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